Killer fungus is no mystery to Afghan poppy growers
Afghanistan's opium producers believe they are victims of a biological attack by the United States
Reports of a "mysterious" fungus that has damaged opium poppy crops in Afghanistan have hit international headlines but on the ground the "mystery" is an open secret. Helmand farmers interviewed by BBC Pashto service for the early-morning news programme a couple of days ago were convinced that "they" had deliberately destroyed the crops.
The pronoun "they" is a euphemism for US secret agents, whom farmers suspect of having sprayed the crops with the fungus. Afghan farmers have been cultivating opium poppies for a considerable period of time. This allows them to distinguishing between natural causes and artificially induced problems.
In their suspicion and accusation, Afghan farmers are likely to be ignored. The government lacks the necessary equipment to conduct proper research. The United Nations Drugs Office in Afghanistan is conducting research but the institution is no longer widely trusted. As with all other mysterious incidents in Afghanistan, this story too is likely to be lost and forgotten in the fog of war.
When the report of the fungus was first published, a reliable source directed the author of this article to the Sunshine Project, a now suspended non-profit organisation. In 2000, the international NGO had published a report about "dangerous US fungus experiments", warning against the potentially harmful impact of the fungus on biodiversity in the target drug-producing regions.
The report said: "The strains of the fungi fusarium oxysporum and pleospora papveracae might infect and kill plants other than coca, poppy and cannabis in ecologically sensitive areas of Asia and the Americas."
An indication of the potential risks caused by the use of such fungi, tailored to affect drug-producing plants, is the fact that their use was banned in the United States itself.
Further investigation into the fungi shows that their production and use is bordering on illegal. According to the Sunshine Project report, the US has created genetically modified strands of the fungus, and this, in turn, means that the product can be classified as a biological weapon.
Farmers in Afghanistan might regard the disease affecting their crops as artificially induced but they are probably unaware of the manner in which the crop samples were in all likelihood collected. To trace the probable route of sample collection leads us to a BBC Panorama programme entitled Britain's Secret War on Drugs, broadcast in 2000.
The report takes us to Uzbekistan, to a Soviet laboratory that was set up to conduct research into biological weapons. The laboratory was abandoned after the collapse of the Soviet Union but resumed operation with funding provided by US and British governments. It was in this laboratory that pleospora papaveracea, the fungus that affects opium poppies, was discovered, becoming the Soviet Union's first biological weapon.
Professor Abdusattar, a scientist working at the laboratory, explained to the BBC Panorama reporter, Tom Mangold, that samples from Afghanistan were provided with help from the US embassy.
Scientists working on the fungus back in 2000 said that the fungus was safe, affecting opium poppies only and that it represented no danger to the environment and was unlikely to spread to other region. In a manner that is typical of scientists, it was pointed out that this assessment was to the best of scientific knowledge. A reasonable disclaimer but hardly reassuring. An interesting aspect of the fungus research is the fact that leading fungus researchers joined the UN's Drugs Control Programme and their endorsement helped to ensure British and American governments' funding of the project.
Research for a product bordering on illegality, funded with taxpayer money from the United States and the United Kingdom, has led to the creation of a lethal weapon against opium poppy crops in Afghanistan.
Whether the fungus presently affecting the crops in Afghanistan is in fact pleospora papaveracea is far from clear. The UN Office on Drugs and Crime in Kabul is conducting sample research and has been unable to confirm the identity of the disease.
But farmers in Afghanistan are convinced that the disease has been artificially induced. They suspect that Kabul's allies in London and Washington are involved. The loss of the crop will subject small farmers to financial hardship and the consequences will be felt by entire families. Young girls are likely to become the first victim of the situation as small farmers will not be able to pay their debts and will have to offer the family's young girls for marriage in substitution for the missing cash.
The resentment felt among farmers is also likely to further drive them into the sphere of influence of the Taliban insurgents who present themselves as friends and protectors. Environmentalist activists in Afghanistan are equally likely to feel disenchanted as the contradictions between official policy of environmentalism advocated by London and Washington and the realities on the ground fail to make sense. If women's rights groups in the US and the UK are outraged by the fact that young Afghan girls are traded for debt, the fact that their own governments might have implicitly supported policies that increase risks for young girls is even more puzzling to Afghan women activists on the ground.
Perhaps the most pertinent aspect of debates about the Afghan drugs trade is the lack of discussion of the other side: the consumer markets in the urban centres of the western world which have turned opium poppy into a lucrative cash crop in a country in persistent threat of famine. To discuss the Afghan drugs trade in isolation from the markets that it supplies is not only morally questionable, it is also a denial of the social problems that lead to addiction from Moscow, to Paris and London. The small farmers of Afghanistan may not be entirely innocent but they certainly are as vulnerable as the addicts they supply.
guardian.co.uk, Monday 17 May 2010 10.30 BST
ok, this is an old news story, but quite interesting in light of the current heroin situation. I've also uploaded a .pdf of the Sunshine Projects 2000 report referred to in the article - interesting stuff.
ETA: Thanks for the heads-up on this one, SWIDicemanstyle!
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Killer fungus is no mystery to Afghan poppy growers